A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Chatsworth, ON.
RCL Texts: Isaiah 2.1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44
“Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24.42). These words of Jesus seem rather ominous and may strike us with a sense of fear and anxiety. Talking about the end of the world is certainly not a cheerful topic for polite conversation and thinking about the apocalypse does not typically put people in a positive frame of mind. So why begin this New Year, at least as it is on the Christian Calendar, this first Sunday of Advent on such a seemingly negative passage? After all, isn’t Advent a time to prepare for Christmas?
The context of today’s Gospel reading is similarly bleak: in the preceding and following verses, Jesus preaches parables about the coming of the Son of Man, prophesies about the destruction of the Temple, and talks about the signs of the end of the world and the judgment of the nations. Moreover, Jesus frames his words within a reference to the story of Noah, which is hardly a cute-and-cuddly tale of a floating zoo as often depicted in children’s’ picture books. These are not the kind of things we like to associate with Jesus; after all, isn’t the core of his preaching essentially ‘be nice to one another’, especially as we look forward to Christmas?
The truth of the matter is that Jesus is not trying to ratchet up the anxiety of his disciples or attempting to get them to live in fear. Indeed, Jesus is doing the exact opposite; he is telling the disciples to hold fast to God’s promises. Jesus is waking us up from our cultural slumber to face the reality of His coming again. Just as Jesus’ coming at Christmas some 2000 years ago was good news for the world, so too is Jesus’ second coming good news. However, this is precisely part of the problem: while we can pinpoint the date of Christmas, we cannot predict, despite the attempts of many self-proclaimed prophets throughout history, the date of Jesus’ second coming. And it is this unknowing that is the source of anxiety for some and complete apathy for others. Jesus is addressing both this anxiety and apathy in telling his disciples, both then and now, to be alert, to be watchful, to be ready.
Jesus is not giving his disciples good advice; he is commanding them to “keep awake”. This command is meant to open his disciples’ eyes to the reality of God’s promised future. Last week, I suggested that the beginning of the end of the world began on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I want to expand this thought: the end of the end of the world begins with Jesus’ second coming and it is for this coming that we must be ready. The Christian calendar, which begins today, is an essential part of preparing ourselves for Christ’s return because the Christian calendar reminds us not only that human history revolves around Jesus Christ, but also that Christ holds human time – and therefore each and every one of us – in his loving hands. As we prepare for Christmas during the season of Advent, so too we are preparing for Christ’s second coming. As we prepare for Easter during the season of Lent, so too we prepare for Christ’s glorious appearance where he will restore all things. As we journey through the long period after Pentecost, we learn the virtue of patient waiting.
Patience is key to Jesus’ command to ‘keep alert’, otherwise our anxiety may lead us in facile attempts to predict the future. On the contrary, apocalyptic language and imagery is “not an invitation for [Jesus’] followers to try to predict the future, but to help his disciples to learn to live in the presence of the one who has come” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 204). Although Jesus ascended to heaven, he remains with his disciples through the Holy Spirit, a presence that is most intimately realized in the Eucharist. While we await Christ’s coming again in glory, he do not await in lonely isolation; Christ is here with us and remains with us through his earthly body, the Church. Indeed, Jesus’ disciples, “like Noah, are called to build an ark, even if it is not raining. The name given to that ark is the Church” (Hauerwas, 206).
In his time, Noah was surrounded by what one commentator calls “secular indifference to God and God’s ways” (Bruner, Matthew). This indifference was present in Jesus’ day and it remains alive and well in our time. Indifference and cultural complacency can easily work their way into the Church when that Church refuses to keep awake. Apathy abounds in a Church that does not have a clear sense of its mission. Like the ark, the Church is a protective space. However, this protection is not born of fear; the protective nature of the church is rooted in its conviction that “the words of Jesus will keep disciples alive” (Bruner, 521). The words of Jesus are the very words of Scripture; Scripture is one of the gifts given by God to the Church so that the Church will ‘keep awake’. Therefore, the Church is properly protective insofar as it is formative, which is a fancy way of saying that one of the primary purposes of the Church is the formation of disciples who are properly equipped to go into a world that is both at times hostile and indifferent in order to preach the gospel.
And what is this gospel? Christ has died for the forgiveness of sins. Christ rose again to conquer death. Christ will come again to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth. We gather as Church in order to hear this message over and over and over again so that as we are evangelized by the gospel, we may in turn share this gospel. The Church itself, in its worship and witness, is meant to give the world but a small taste of God’s promise future, a future lived in communion with God, a future where enemies become friends, where healing abounds, and where joyous praise resounds. However, both anxiety about the future and apathy about the gospel will stand in the way of our preparation and formation. Therefore, keep alert. Be ready. Be prepared.
The Church is comprised of people who “know what time it is”; we know that “now is the moment for us to wake from sleep” (Rom. 13.11). A life of discipleship is not for the “careless and clueless” (Bruner); it is not for sleepers; it is not for those content to follow the ways of the world. “Disciples are called to follow their Lord in a certain eschatological agnosticism, not knowing when the end will occur” (Bruner). Therefore, Christian discipleship requires a courage born of the assurance that whatever may transpire, whether good or ill, that ultimately God holds the future in His hands. As someone once remarked: “Christians are in sales, not management” (as quoted in Bruner, 522).
Not only are we called to be ready and waiting for Christ’s return, we are to do so in eager anticipation. Martin Luther once said “Christians should live as if Jesus has died this morning, risen this afternoon, and was coming this evening”. How we respond to this thought exercise will offer us a direct insight into the shape of our discipleship.
If our response is anxiety, the question is: why are we anxious? Are we assuming that we can and should bend history to our desires? Are we worried about a future that is out of our control?
If our response is apathy, the question is: why are we indifferent? What has captured our imaginations? What is the source of our distraction?
Noah knew what was about to happen; he heard the word of the Lord and prepared accordingly. Unlike those around him who were lulled into a sense of complacency and false assurance that everything is fine, there were no surprises for Noah.
The Church prepares for the Lords return by watching for the Lord to meet us in our neighbour, in our enemy, in the poor, and in the person who desperately needs to hear the gospel. As disciples, we prepare by living our lives not under the complacent assumption that everything is fine and dandy, but rather with the sure and certain hope that despite all appearances to the contrary, that Christ is Lord of past, present, and future and that he will come again.
Origen, a second century theologian, once said “In a sense, the end of the world has already come for the person to whom the world is crucified…And to the one who is dead to worldly things, the Day of the Lord has already arrived” (thanks to Fr. Jonathan Turtle for sharing these quotations). To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be baptized into His death and to live into the reality of resurrected life. To die to the things of the world is to live in the light of Christ’s heavenly glory. Dying to the selfish desires of self and to the lure of the world is exceedingly difficult, nay impossible; indeed this kind of dying is not something we can do through our own strength. However, through Christ, all things are possible, including the dying to self. This is exactly why Christ calls us to ‘keep alert’: it is only in fixing our eyes on Him, the author and finisher of our salvation, that we will have the strength to stay awake and prepare ourselves for his coming.
Christ may not return in during your or my lifetime or even that of my children or grandchildren. Nevertheless, even if he does not, you and I will still meet Him face to face upon our deaths. Therefore, as His disciples, we spend our lives preparing to meet Him, not with dread or uncertainty, but with joyful and hopeful anticipation. Joy and hope are contagious – they bubble out and impact everyone within reach. As a Church, joy and hope should be at the centre of our lives, both corporately and individually. When joy and hope are at the centre, neither anxiety nor apathy will gain a foothold. Joy and hope are gifts God gives to us to help us prepare for Christ’s coming precisely by sharing these gifts with the world.
This Advent, I invite you to reclaim the joy and hope of Christ and to put them at the centre of your life so that you may “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and share his love with the world in anticipating of his coming again.